Sunday, March 4, 2012
Dark Empire - From Refuge to Ruin
Oh Prog Metal!... how I love thee! Let me count the ways. With all your crazy complex time signatures, dark brooding chord progressions, unexpected change ups, dramatic guttural vocal gymnastics and complex melodies. Not to mention the demanding , exceptional musicianship to support that astounding landscape.
The more complex, the more brooding, the more intertwined, the more exploratory - the better.
And so, New Jersey natives DARK EMPIRE leap from the battlement brandishing downtuned weapons with their full frontal sonic assault in their third release, “From Refuge to Ruin”. But why beat around the medieval bush Gollum? HOLEE CRAP can these bad ass muthaphuckahs throw down!! And write stupendous layered compositions to boot! Just like the summer midway carnies holler, “DING!! We have a winnah!”
Right from the get go (and the lion’s mouth), the DARK EMPIRE lads get busy “fusing elements of extreme and classic metal, 70’s prog rock with vibrant and meaningful lyrics”. At the risk of sounding like a LARP clutching a decanter, they summon forth a splendiferous amalgam of unique, as yet uncharted musical soundscapes cultured in a raw, aggressive framework. In layman’s terms, this shit is freakin’ EPIC!!
Taking over the vocal reigns is the powerful and versatile new recruit Brian Larkin. For the first time out, this gifted barker has made an astonishing impact with his range, storytelling and tonality. Keyman songwriting genius and lead guitarist Matt Moliti is a one man wrecking ball. His relentless attack shows no quarter. Each and every track is a staggering testimony to the fine balance of intricate note placement and arrangement delivered with devastating, bunker busting, heat seeking riffology. This dude knocks it out of the friggin’ park and then some! Interestingly (to quote the lion again), he also “lends a chilling death vocal counterpoint to Larkin’s leather-throated melodic lines.” Underscoring Moliti’s commanding, elaborate guitar work and Larkin’s arresting vocals is the prolific, complex thunder and deep rhythmic resonance of bassist Randy Knecht and the “Dave Lombardo-meets-Gavin Harrison” skin scorching drumming of session player Matt Graff. These two dudes are off the hook!
The perfectly orchestrated combination of all of the above is enough to make you blow your proverbial load. Kudos to Producer Jeremy Krull for doing a superb job on the pristine and powerful production, recording and mix. The band “injects fresh new influences” into their follow up to 2008’s more Thrash oriented “Humanity Dethroned”. Like their hero pioneering predecessors Genesis and King Crimson, “DARK EMPIRE inventively utilize vintage Mellotron and Hammond Organ samples throughout the new album, as well as delicate 12-string acoustic interludes and haunting, atmospheric melodies”. Yup, couldn’t agree more. But as their bio reads “this doesn’t undermine the push the band has also made in the heavier end of the dynamic spectrum, now utilizing seven string guitars, crushing doom metal entities and blistering death metal inspired riffs. These new elements serve to compliment, not overshadow the band’s thrashy progressive metal roots. It’s indicative of the dark and doomy broadened range of styles found throughout”. What he said.
Let’s poke into their auditory arsenal, shall we?
A PLAGUE IN THE THRONE ROOM comes as familiar territory to existing fans with a thrash percussive line feel to it, like much of their previous work. But the injection of fresh directions quickly begins to take hold when Larkin’s leather throated, guttural vocals are suddenly and surprisingly backed by Moliti’s death metal growls as an uncommon prog undercurrent. And just when you thought cookie monster was all tied up on the mic, he tears your earholes a new one with a SMOKIN’ solo midway through! Time and time again the boys flawlessly demonstrate uber tight musicianship. Crazy tight really – especially Moliti’s signature stop pick riffing. Not to be outdone by himself (is that even possible?) he and bass invader Knecht come roaring back with a bone rattling chug-a-lug carry through riff. This ain’t Riffology 101 folks. This is a post-graduate Master class. And like a great prog metal band after my own heart, they introduce a gorgeous, ominous atmospheric background Mellotron wash towards the finish. Familiar, but still very much welcome.
DREAMING IN VENGEANCE – KA-CHING!!... smokin’ tune! This song’s right in my prog metal wheelhouse. Downtuned right out of the gate with tasty middle eastern influenced instrumentation and chording. Free range fret runs a plenty on this one powered by a killer, singular, turbo charged lead off riff. This puppy boasts a couple of intriguing variances on the traditional death metal growler vox as well, quickly pursued by soaring vocals and merciless, pounding guitar runs. Tight, tight delivery supercharged with complex rhythms and sa-weet post glistens. Gorgeous guitar flourishes abound and once again (not surprisingly) Mr. Moliti knocks another scorching solo out of Yankee stadium. This kick ass little ditty’s a slice of fret shreddin’ heaven with some serious bad ass chord progressions. And fitting piano lines hang hauntingly in the distance conjuring up looming soundscapes.
THE CRIMSON PORTRAIT – the lone guitar intro eerily similar to Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” greets your earholes off the top, but there’s no coffee served on this proverbial porch. These bad ass muthas launch straight into another full, brooding keyboard washscape (thanks for reading the memo!) backed by a full onslaught of tight, well balanced instrumentation. A clarion of clear, balls out vocals refreshingly dominates this time around, propelled by bold, fiery, chugging riffs and a double bass kick that just won’t quit. In a surprising production manoeuver, the integral cookie monster vocal venom now underpins Larkin’s front and center vocal presence, creating an interesting textured layer aka. Alexisonfire. I have to say the chorus in this tune is just flat out gorgeous!... beautifully constructed - wow (a personal fave) followed again by yet another mind bending, face melting, fret shredding solo.
DARK SEEDS OF DEPRAVITY unveils itself with a meek, classical string intro that powers right into a full on speed metal type framework with a one two punch of supreme masterful riffaciousness. Larkin shines on this one with multiple voice textures and range, trading off in a steel cage death match with Moliti’s incessant growls. This sonic onslaught suddenly bursts into a stunning, bleak, ethereal keyboard driven soundscape backed by a more plodding beat. Then, just when you think the lads had prematurely abandoned the genius that is this song, they come roaring back with another deadly riff. Moliti not only struts his technical and creative stuff here, but captures some awesome tones as well, as evidenced by more mysterious, exotic eastern influences in the short but impactful solo.
FROM REFUGE TO RUIN – the title track offers up a sentimental Genesis “Carpet Crawlers” inspired intro. that pleasantly resurfaces at different times throughout the song. But in true DARK EMPIRE fashion, this balladish opening quickly and decisively moves into heavier territory. In keeping with the intro., the overall song is a much more open (albeit heavy) landscape with a breathtaking mix of instrumentation. Thought provoking lyrics also run rampant - “Though it’s treacherous but we carry on through perilous wastelands and hope to find our way home” and “Are we left for dead? Are we space between the stars? Are we standing still? I can’t find it in my heart. Will you persevere?”. This orchestral gem then slides effortlessly into heaviosity with distant discordant strings and jaw dropping drum fills. Wait! What’s that?!... a flute you say? Yup… and guess what? It works. Like any great song that’s ever incorporated the delicate instrument, it’s paramount to pick not just the right moments, but the most fitting ones. Jeremy Krull nails it. Hence the “other side” expansive, sky’s-the-limit beauty of Prog Metal. But not to digress. Never tiring, the boys plow headfirst right back into uber dissonant, riff mad heaviness and finish with a classically inspired anthemic extro. that would make Yngwie Malmsteen proud.
LEST YE BE JUDGED ups the speed metal irons again with some signature off-the-hook Moliti noodling dancing over top. Again Krull has layered the simultaneous multi-textured soaring vs. growl vocals to great effect. Red hot buzz saw guitar tones abound in this number driven by galloping rhythms, haunting chord choices and killer percussive work from Mr. Graff.
WHAT MEN CALL HATRED bursts out of the gate with a blitzkrieg BLS/Zakk Wylde inspired fret line. Then it suddenly and purposefully switches gears with the vocals and a verse line similar to Dream Theater. It’s all good! Well, almost. Not sure the cookie monster vox are really necessary here. They distract from the awesome melody and seem like overkill. Not to be detoured, the boys throw up a sonic slam dunk with superior down tuned guitar tones, a couple of monster solos and some nice distant brooding reprieves.
BLACK HEART’S DEMISE begins with some sweet, open ended lightly reverbed progressions reminiscent of the beginning of I Mother Earth’s iconic “One More Astronaut”. In true DE fashion, this outer ring of the sonic palette morphs into familiar old school thrash beats. And unlike the last track, the death metal voicework flows in perfect unison. Always pushing the proverbial production envelope, Producer Krull now flips the earlier vocal paradigm on its head and moves some of the soaring, up front singing to the back seat as supporting harmonies. Once again, the band show their highly decorated chops with great chord structure and progression choices in the verse, super tight riffing punctuated by countless stops all impacted by razor sharp bridge riffs over a complex, thundering rhythmic foundation. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s Mo-liti shredding runs all over top. Whew! *wipes sweat from brow*
THE CLEANSING FIRES is a 13 minute + brooding giant of pure epic, unabashed prog metal glory! Starting with a poignant acoustic opening and the clearest vocals to date, the band plummets right into a speed metal abyss hitting a concrete wall going 90. Can’t think now… too percussed… head pounding… exploding! Out of the impact I’m met with guttural pipes, chugging riffs from the depths of Hades and combative death metal utterances. Then to my sheer delight!... down down down goes the tuning. What ensues is an EPIC battle between not just one, but THREE unique vocal styles – death metal growls, guttural torn mid-range vox and high flying voice work! It comes off like a freakin’major league feature film soundtrack. Move over Lord of the Ringlettes!... DARK EMPIRE’s in town. And they ain’t takin’ any prisoners. The remainder of the track is flush with non-stop, killer riffs and some tidy FX highlights presented in perfect balance. These guys never overstay their welcome in any particular mood driven moment, constantly thrust forward by Graff’s precision, machine gun double kick and Moliti’s well executed trade off noodlefest solos.
At the end of the day, prog metal is about drama, values and substance real or imagined, and this song and album deliver it in spades! It digs deep creatively and technically and covers multiple sonic landscapes with bountiful, brooding atmospheric strains. Prog metal lovers take note! This new release is an absolute MUST HAVE in your collection. You can thank me later. Any fan of Dream Theater, Symphony X, Nevermore and Firewind amongst others will dig these guys. EPICNESS RATING? 9 behemoths out of 10.